L’Excuse (or, I play the Fool)

I may as well put it out here first thing. Because I can’t think about anything else until I come clean. I haven’t been writing. Not, “I haven’t been writing recently.” Or, “It’s been days since I’ve written.” No. I haven’t written in weeks. Weeks. Not quite months –  I smashed together a couple of flash fiction pieces in March and April. A few book reviews. Does a restaurant review count? No, I didn’t think so.

I do have a reason. Reason, a variant of Excuse. Excuse happens to be the term for “the Fool” in French Tarot. If you hold L’Excuse, you can play the card on any trick you wish, but L’Excuse can never win the trick. How very à propos. So, here’s my Excuse.

I was studying for the Level 3 (Advanced) Certificate from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. I sat the exam on Sunday. I think I passed. It was wicked and hard. I remembered that Grenouilles is a Chablis Grand Cru but forgot that Vougeot is in the Côte de Nuits; I knew that Coonawara’s terra rossa makes smashing Cabernet sauvignon, but couldn’t for the life of me remember the principle Sauvignon blanc production region in Chile (Casablanca, wine fans). Fortunately, essay questions made up the bulk of the exam. Once I started writing, I felt on solid ground. Except that the written portion of the exam took place AFTER the blind tasting. With all that ** and ** sloshing around in me (at least I hope to God that’s what those wines were; it was a blind tasting after all! And we’re asked not to offer any identifications until we receive the exam results. In three months.), I was in prime form. Off I went to write how to cultivate and vinify grapes for a botrytized wine.

From the end of February, I devoted my weekends (and evenings when I could muster the energy) to a growing stack of flashcards, to notes in a carefully plotted rainbow of ink colors, to maps of regions and charts of processes, to diagrams of Coffey and pot stills, to drawings of Vertical Shoot Positioning with replacement-cane vs. cordon-spur pruning.

But Sunday afternoon, when I turned in my exam materials and the borrowed #2 pencil, the need to keep appellations, classifications, soil types, climatic conditions, aging requirements and vinification procedures nestled in drawers in my brain came to an end.

Yes, my day job involves wine. And beer (I prefer an informal approach to studying the glorious world of malt and hops. It involves a bottle, a glass and an opener). But the WSET certificate was far more than a professional endeavor. This continuation of my wine education, which began formally at the New Zealand School of Food and Wine in 2006 and informally at a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris in 1990, made me ever more passionate about wine (and its more rough-and-tumble cousin, spirits – all that rectifying and reflux makes it the more masculine of pursuits). It was a way to connect the intellect with the heart. So much of what inspires me about wine is intuitive and sensory – after years of tasting with intent – or has come from my experiences traveling and living in regions known for wine production, from personal relationships with winemakers and farmers and of course, from my own experiences in vineyards.

But truth be told, there were days and nights when I ached to write and I turned away from the computer and from my notebook nearly every time, to refocus my attention on my multi-colored notes and highlighted text. And I felt like a fraud each time. I had that twitchiness you get after you haven’t worked out for a few days. The twitchiness turns all too soon to lethargy; writing chops atrophy just like blood-and-sinew muscles. You stop using them long enough and they stop caring much about what you do.

But if you aren’t too far out of shape, it takes just a few weeks of consistent workouts to feel those lean muscles forming underneath your lazy fat. You stand a little straighter, your lungs don’t empty out so soon, your find yourself craving…

…the pen, the keyboard, the rush of words that push at your synapses and burst from your fingertips as you pelt at the keys. I can’t say that the more I write, the easier it gets. But the more I write, I want to write more often. The general idea is to get better at it.

Last week a stranger who is considering hiking in Ireland contacted me via a mutual friend. I’ve hiked in Ireland several times; Brendan and I are returning in September to hike the Kerry Peninsula. So, I wrote Heather a general e-mail about what to take, how to approach the experience and what to expect. It was a packing list with anecdotes. Here’s what she wrote in reply:

Dear Julie:

First of all, wow.  Just … wow.  You write so beautifully.  I don’t know what you do for a living, but if it doesn’t involve writing, you should quit whatever it is you are doing and change careers.  Immediately.  I’ve read this email three times now and I get more excited about the trip with each read-through.  Thank you!

No, Heather. Thank YOU. Shit. But I love my day job. All that wine…

And so I return. I set aside the formal pursuit of one passion and turn my soul to its other calling. It’s going to take a few painful, exhausting workouts to get back in shape. I knew this was coming. I just have to begin. To write.

I think I’ll have a beer first.

9 thoughts on “L’Excuse (or, I play the Fool)

  1. I’m the beer person in my family. I envy the ubiquitous Guinness fresh from the tap you are going to have in Ireland. My wife is the oenophile in our house. Her discovery is similar, a restaurant in France and someone ordering the perfect wines to go with the food and then the “oh my god!” reaction. Our alcohol budget has never been the same…
    Oh, and by the way, your friend Heather was right!


    • Oh, Tom – what a wonderful thing to say. Thank you!

      Funny – Guinness is something I drink rarely Stateside, even draught. But it tastes better, so much better, in Ireland. Looking forward to that first heady pint.

      I work for PCC as the Ass’t Wine & Beer Merchandiser. Brendan and I co-host a wine dinner once a month with PCC’s executive chef, Lynne Vea (occasionally beer dinners- we’ve got one in October!) and it’s such a joy to do the wine and food pairings. When I nail it, there’s nothing sweeter. Good food, good wine…good life.

      And I should add a post script to this post: I passed the exam!


      • Congrats! But I’m not surprised.
        PCC is a great store, and what a great job! My wife joined back in the days when you had to go in and do your part for the co-op, mixing granola or bottling kefir or whatever. I think she used to have the number 00022. So how can we learn about these dinners? (If you prefer, go to my “contact” page and send me the info privately rather than publicizing it to the world here.)
        Have fun in Ireland! And cheers!


  2. I love wine and have always wanted to take “a wine class”.I’ve always said that when the writing pays off or all of the kids move out, I’ll be able to take a wine class. Right now, I choose a bottle by the label that appeals the most to me. The way things are going, I’ll be choosing it this way for a long time 😉

    I liked the comparison between writing and exercise; it’ very true. I hope you enjoy getting back into writing.


    • I’m so glad you stopped by, Dawne. I’ve just discovered your blog – so wonderful to be inspired by and to learn from a writer!

      The self-teaching approach is the way to go! You’re so open to exploration and you are free from bias and expectation. Love what you drink, drink what you love 🙂


  3. Oh my dear Julie, I love you so and am so proud of you. If I were the type I might even be envious of your soul, your life… You are juggling so many balls and you do them all with grace. And the friend of a friend is only repeating what those of us who have known you by your words know: You are a writer.


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